Cohen returns to Handel and Haydn Society in style


    Photo: Sam Brewer

The current season of the Handel and Haydn Society continues to be one to watch. Underscoring the varied concert offerings has been the long farewell of conductor Harry Christophers, who is stepping down next month after thirteen years at the helm. His tenure has been one of unprecedented success, and he will leave behind a legacy of artistic excellence unmatched in the recent history of the country’s oldest musical organization.


But mum has been the word from H&H management over who will fill his shoes. CEO David Snead said in January that the process to find the next artistic director is an extensive one that “will take as long as it needs to.”


In the meantime, the season has witnessed a host of podium guests in stellar H&H performances that leave one to wonder if any of them could find themselves in a long-term commitment in Boston. Raphaël Pichon made an excellent impression in December, bringing depth and precision to the ensemble’s holiday program. The month prior featured Laurence Equilbey leading a memorable performance of Louise Farrenc’s Symphony No. 3.


Similar thoughts were in the air Friday night, when Jonathan Cohen made his similarly impressive return to H&H leading music by C.P.E. Bach, J.S. Bach, and Vivaldi at Symphony Hall.


The director and partner with a number of period-instrument ensembles, Cohen has offered vivid interpretations of a wide range of repertoire as cellist, keyboardist, and leader. He casts a dynamic presence on the podium, leading with brisk cutting gestures that teased the vitality from every line of C.P.E. Bach's Magnificat on Friday.


The earliest of the composer’s large scale works, the Magnificat bears the imprint of the elder Bach. Fugal choruses frame arias that relay a dramatic tension that Cohen, leading from the harpsichord, drew out with assurance.


The evening’s soloists found both nuance and surging intensity. Stepping in last minute for Joélle Harvey, soprano Amanda Forsythe found the sweet joys of “Quia respexit.” Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano made the “Suscepit Israel” into a poignant plea for mercy, and her dark timbre complemented Forsythe’s nimble voice in the “Et misericordia.”


In the "Quia fecit," tenor Nicholas Phan conveyed the fervency of steadfast faith. Tyler Duncan’s clarion bass in “Fecit potentiam” suitably matched the power rendered by the orchestral trumpets and timpani.


The chorus, prepared by Scott Allen Jarrett, sang with its usual splendor. The "Magnificat" took on power and resolve in a hymn of praise. So too did the “Gloria Patri,” the joyful exuberance carrying into the concluding fugue. 

Amanda Forsythe. Photo: Sam Brewer


The musicians also found the operatic dimensions of Vivaldi's Gloria. Here, too, Forsythe sang with effortless dynamism, capturing both the underlying exuberance and pastoral warmth of the “Domine Deus.” She made for delicate counterbalance with Sonja DuToit Tengblad’s dark, ringing soprano in the “Laudamus te.” Cano again proved a superb partner, wringing the sweet agony from the “Domine Deus” and underlying vigor from the “Qui sedes.”


Cohen shaped the lines like a sculptor, teasing out subtle crescendos from the chorus in the opening “Gloria” and concluding “Quoniam tu solus sanctus.” The concluding “Cum sancto spiritu” sounded with the conviction of a Sunday sermon.


Throughout the evening, the orchestra responded to Cohen's guide with sensitivity and vitality, a freshness evident from the onset in J. S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 1.


Most period instrument bands play Bach with a bite and crispness. Yet Cohen’s big-picture approach drew out an enveloping warmth. The dotted figures of the overture went with a gentle sway that took on zest in the energetic fugue.


Other movements walked a similar wire between zeal and soulful lyricism. The Courante moved in a steady lilt, the Gavottes with stately grace. The players brought roiling ardor to the Forlane and Bourrée as well as a buoyant, concertante balance to the Menuet movements. The Passepied, shaped with vocal arc, revealed that subtlety remains the most arresting quality of Bach’s music.


The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at Symphony Hall.